Is it an instant gratification toy or a serious tool to create new ideas?
A product that automatically generates chord progressions?! That sounded like the very antithesis of everything I’ve ever known to be holy and sacred about making music!
Nonetheless, I went ahead with this review of Native Instruments Playbox to see whether it has a legitimate place within a modern composer’s toolbox. As it turns out…
Overview. Playbox is one of the more recent offerings from the ever expanding Native Instruments catalog of sample libraries. It runs on their Kontakt or Kontakt Player sample players, and it’s fully NKS-compliant for use within the Komplete Kontrol hardware ecosystem.
Installation of the library is handled through the Native Instruments Service Center app, and the full download comes in at a surprisingly small 1.2GB. This makes Playbox well suited for those working on computers with limited storage space such as travel laptops.
The emphasis of Playbox’s sonic scope is on electronic music, but I found the extensive library to work well in a variety of styles and applications.
UI. The first thing to grab my attention about Playbox is its strikingly uncluttered and clean interface.
The left half of the Main Page houses an XY pad, used for real-time expressive control of select effect Macro parameters. This black sphere can be controlled with a mouse, although unfortunately you can’t record movements as standard DAW automation.
On the right is a series of up to six colorful cubes, each representing the layers of the samples used. Clicking on the black dice triggers a cute animation that randomizes the three main instrument modules of Playbox: Chords, Samples, and FX.
A series of Macros, or groups of parameters can also be moved and automated to control additional parameters in the FX chain. Each Macro can be configured to receive MIDI CC by simply right-clicking on the screen knob and moving the desired knob on the MIDI controller.
Architecture: It can be useful to think of Playbox as three separate but interconnected modules: Chords, Samples, and FX. Each contributes a key component that makes up a Preset.
The Chords Page is where you create randomly generated (but musically coherent) Chord Sets up to six notes deep each. Chords are triggered by eight white keys on the controller keyboard in the range of C3 to C4 (very handy for those with smaller keyboard controllers and travel-ready setups).
You select the desired key in Major or Minor modes. Switching from major to minor automatically switches the root, for example A minor becomes C rather than A major, which may or may not be what you intend.
You can change the octave range from -2 to +2 octaves. It’s a little curious that lower values are displayed as up and v.v., and that you can raise the pitch by semitones but not lower it.
Also, enharmonic chord spellings would be useful (seeing Cmin spelled with a D#, G#, and A# feels wrong).
But these may be version 1 issues, and they’re subjective.
The Samples page controls the layers of samples used in each chord. You can select different ones for each chord note.
The various sample categories are represented by different colorful cubes for Synths, Instruments, Bass, Voices, Noises, and User sample categories.
Then the FX page contains as many as eight effect slots. Playbox has a variety of temporal effects such as Grain, Reverb, and Delays; filtering effects like as EQs; Flangers and Phasers; Arpeggiators; and signal “degrading” effects such as Bit Reducers, Distortions, Tape Emulators and other assorted audio manglers.
I found this to be a powerful way to process the samples. Playbox truly shines here, with incredibly diverse ways of manipulating the samples to create a stunning variety of sonic colors.
Presets. There are over 300 presets containing Chords, Samples, and FX in Playbox’s browser. The main presets categories are organized as Instruments, Synths, Voices, and Supernatural (noises and percussive elements), as well as User and Getting Started categories.
A 1-second audio preview is available for auditioning before you load a preset.
It’s easy to get lost for hours playing with Playbox’s presets. Most are well thought out and configured.
The various chord sets offer unexpected progressions that provide both a compositional leaping off point and an harmonic to construct the rest of the track.
Each chord is designed to work with every other one in the set, so you can create a variety of progressions by triggering them in different orders.
The results can be interesting. For this first track I used Bridges, Gone Dagger and Last on Earth, as well as the Drum Drip preset for some rhythmic activity. I was able to easily load the same Chord sets on all three presets as to give me harmonic consistency between them.
Playbox’ randomization function – accessed by “rolling” (clicking) on the dice – is one of its key features. This alone yields an almost infinite number of variations, but each component can also be randomized individually.
If, say, the chords are a perfect fit but the sample set isn’t right, no problem – you just randomize the samples, leaving the chords and FX untouched. You can also Padlock various sets. When you’re satisfied, you save it as a User preset.
Customization. While many users will be more than happy to stick to the built-in curated presets or randomly-generated instrument sets, I found Playbox’s user customization features to be the real game-changer.
You can record up to six notes for each of the eight available chord slots. The entire range of the keyboard is available, and the playback sound conveniently switches to an electric piano so you can hear the harmonic structure more clearly.
You can also drag and drop .mid files of chord sequences onto the interface. Playbox is then smart enough to interpret the MIDI file and assign each chord to the appropriate slot.
The manual says it’s possible to drag and drop a MIDI region unto Playbox directly from the DAW’s timeline, but I was unable to do so within Logic Pro. The reverse did work: drag-dropping Playbox’s built-in chord progressions directly from the interface onto a DAW track or the desktop as a .mid file.
You can also drag and drop audio files onto Playbox’s interface (.wav, .aif, and Kontakt’s native .ncw formats). The engine quickly analyzes them and automatically sets its correct pitch value (where applicable). You can also set in and out points.
It would be useful if you could map sample sets as unisons to play them across the keyboard like regular instruments, but this might be counter to the concept of what Playbox is all about.
Up to four user sample slots are available, and each slot can hold as many as 90 individual audio files.
Experimental minimalism. For my second piece I pulled in some long-forgotten “prepared cello” samples purchased almost two decades ago. Running them through Playbox’ various FX chains brought out some amazing sonic textures that instantly breathed new life into them.
This deep level of customization is what makes Playbox such a useful compositional and sound design tool – and so far I’ve barely scratched the surface of its creative possibilities.
There are a dizzying number of routing options in the FX page, which can all be sent to Macros, volume, panning, and transposition options for each of the samples. You can switch from Monophonic to Polyphonic modes while playing to build even more complex harmonic structures. It doesn’t end.
Yet despite the multitudes of available options, Playbox manages to retain its clean and intuitive workflow through the process, only seldom requiring a reference to the PDF manual.
Sorry not sorry for liking it. I feel like I owe a bit of an apology to Native Instruments and Nadine Raihani (Playbox’s concept designer).
When this product was first announced, I feared that in the wrong hands it could dumb down the craft of composition. In actuality I found that Playbox has the potential to be an extremely creative and well thought out compositional tool.
While I’m sure that many users will be happy to stick to the built-in presets and chord sets, Playbox offers far greater rewards to those willing to put in the effort to customize it and unlock the full power of this magical box.